“The Constant Gardener,” the latest adaptation of a book by the quintessentially British John le Carre, is the work of an unlikely director–Brazilian Fernando Meirelles. And as Meirelles admitted in a recent Dallas interview, it was a job that came to him quite fortuitously–and not because he was a long-time fan of the novelist.
“No, I had never read anything by le Carre before,” he said. “Well, I had seen two films made from his books, ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’ and ‘The Tailor of Panama,’ but I had never read his books, not even ‘The Constant Gardener.’ I was given the script. I met the producer, Simon Channing Williams, in London by accident because I wanted to meet Mike Leigh’s producer. I’m a big fan of Mike Leigh, and I was in a bar two blocks from his office with a friend and he said, ‘Oh, I know Simon, he’s a friend of mine, Mike Leigh’s producer. It’s his production company.’ And we went there. That’s how I got involved, almost by chance. One week before Mike Newell had left the project. He was invited to do ‘Harry Potter.’ So I met Simon and he said, ‘You’re one of the names I thought of for this film.’ And he took from his shelf the script and gave me the script. I read it in the hotel that night. The next day I came back to say that I wasn’t going to do the film because I wanted to stay in Brazil–family–but he was so charming, he said, ‘No, we can bring your family. I’ll give you as many tickets as you want, you can stay in an apartment with your family.’ The next day I bought the book, and I decided to do the film after reading the novel. Three days later I was in Africa, choosing locations. It was pretty fast.”
But it wasn’t merely Channing Williams’ persuasiveness that drew Meirelles to the project. It was the narrative, in which diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) investigates the murder of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist who’d been researching how powerful drug companies were using unsuspecting Kenyans for tests of their products, all with the collusion of his own government. “This [the power of multi-national pharmaceutical companies] is a big issue in Brazil,” he explained. “In Brazil there’s a policy for treatment of AIDS. The government pays one hundred percent for everybody. So the number of AIDS cases in Brazil is getting lower and lower. But it’s the government who deals with the pharmaceutical [companies] that produce the drugs. And four years ago they were paying too much, so they decided to start producing generics after negotiating with the companies, and the pressure from the industry and the U.S. State Department was huge. This is a big issue in Brazil, and that’s why I was interested in this case, and in teasing the pharmaceutical industry.” And le Carre’s story, he added, was grounded in solid fact. “The main plot, the story of the companies using Africans as guinea pigs, this happened in Nigeria,” he said. “Exactly the same thing.”
But if le Carre’s narrative closely mirrors the historical reality, Meirelles’ film differs in many respects from the book. “The book is different,” he said. “The same story, but told in a different way.” One big change involved the portrayal of Tessa. “The first time I read the script, the idea was to have a very young Tessa, because in the book she’s younger–she’s like nineteen,” Meirelles said. “The story was this forty, forty-five year old guy who marries this teenager. And I talked to some very young actresses. But we had to create a relationship between Tessa and Justin that could be convincing. That’s when we decided to go with a bit older actress. It’s different from a teenager just acting like a teenager. But we’d started looking for a ‘Lolita.’”
If the script changed the book in some respects, though, Meirelles also changed the script in others, in one case reverting to le Carre’s original. “There was something that I took from the book that was not in the script, and then I decided to go back to the book–the beginning of the film. We tried six different beginnings for the film. We first edited in a linear way–and it was very boring. And then we decided first to start the film with the final sequence, and then go in flashbacks. We tried that, but it didn’t work. We tried six different ways of beginning, starting with different scenes. And in the end we went back to the book. And it worked.”
Mention of this alteration led Meirelles to emphasize the incredible importance of the editing process to the whole of “The Constant Gardener.” He said, “The first cut, at three hours, was too long. So we started to trim, to change scenes.” Meirelles found it a great help that editor Claire Simpson was a writer herself, a novelist. “She helped me a lot to find different ways to tell the story. She was a great partner. We almost rewrote the script in the editing room.” One section that was eliminated was a twelve-minute piece by documentarian Brian Woods “showing,” as Meirelles said, “the power of the pharmaceutical industry. This was in the three-hour version. It was too on the nose. You’ll see it on the DVD.”
Meirelles also mentioned the editing in terms of the rhythm and style of the film, which begins at a rather stately, reserved pace and accelerates at it progresses. The look changes as well, with careful, almost classical compositions becoming more jagged and abrupt in the later stages. “It’s planned on set, and then you have to do it in the cutting room as well,” he explained. “In the beginning of the film we were using a [camera] stand, the camera was quieter. And in the end it was a different feeling, and of course the way it’s cut also.” In the latter stages the picture takes on more of the frenzied mood of Meirelles’ earlier, much-praised “City of God.” But he noted that the distinctive look of that picture was in many respects the result of necessity rather than artistic choice. “That style that you see in ‘City of God’–it happened by accident, actually, because we were working with non-actors. So instead of setting the camera, preparing the sets and lights and then bringing the actors and asking them to keep marks and such–they wouldn’t know how to do this and act at the same time, because they’re not actors, not trained to do that. So we–Cesar Charlone, my DP, and I–we decided to create a way to make them really free to express themselves, to just focus on what they’re saying and feeling. We wanted them to forget that we were shooting something. So Cesar would just put up some lamps, change bulbs and use natural light. Our set doesn’t look like a set. And we use a small camera, so you don’t see much equipment, you don’t see lighting around. It’s like a play, actually. We first bring in the actors and they do the scene, they use the space however they wanted to. After that we shoot hand-held, and the actors are free to move wherever they want–the camera is always following them. They’re not performing for the camera, the camera is trying to chase them. Then when you edit, sometimes you don’t have continuity, you have problems with jumps. But that’s what looks like style–problems of continuity. And we did the same thing here.”